In praise of the BPO worker

Mark Andrew Lim
'Far from wasting talent, the BPO industry has grown in scale, leading to the specialization of roles for its workers: accountants, engineers, nurses, animators, software developers, etc.

I previously wrote a defense of telephone operators, calling for respect for the BPO industry. I now argue that not only  is it not a waste of talent, it is actually one of the best industries for developing them. 

Some continue to dismiss the BPO industry as a fad. My favorite columnist calls it a “fixation,” simplistically reducing it to call centers, and claims the skills needed are “rudimentary.” Well, it has been a 15-year fad and still continues to grow by leaps and bounds, from nearly zero in 2000 to $16 billion in revenues this year.

Instead of suffering from an oversupply of talent like the nursing sector, we are seeing the opposite – a dearth of talent with 95% of applicants rejected for lack of required skills.

Face of the industry 

While contact centers do comprise the bulk of the industry, there is an amazing breadth to it apart from the usual customer relationship management. Entire business processes from HR to finance are now delivered out of the country.

The Philippines continues to be the “destination of choice” not only because we speak English and have lower costs, but also because we have the right skills, attitude, and talent.

Half a million Filipinos graduate with college degrees each year – these accountants now generate financial reports for clients around the globe, engineers draw up blueprints as part of international projects, animators draw the scenes we see in foreign films such as Finding Nemo, nurses who could not find employment in hospitals are now transcribing medical reports for doctors in the United States. My own team recruits flight attendants for a major airline and facilitates live online classes with students abroad.

This is the face of the BPO industry today and it continues to evolve from contact center support to areas that require specialized skills such as big data analytics.

In a few years, some telephone operators will grow to become data scientists, which Harvard calls the “sexiest job of the 21st century.”

There are now a million people in this industry yet some people outside still dismiss that a suposedly real career is a possibility here. All they see are burned out agents and high attrition rates. But if there are one million people, there are now at least 100,000 managers and executives, many of whom started out as agents. There is no other industry offering so much growth at such a fast pace.

The scale of the industry has led to the specialization of roles. Call center agents typically grow into quality specialists, trainers, or team leaders. Those with analytical skills eventually become Six Sigma experts specializing in process improvement using statistical analysis. Others with project management skills become transition managers. Often still in their twenties, they travel extensively, deal with executives, hire hundreds of people, and ensure they have the tools and training they need so that on a specific date – usually in 6 months or less – the process can “go live” smoothly.

Those with skills to face clients become account managers who integrate the work of multiple teams so client expectations are exceeded while ensuring the account makes money. I can go on and on.

These are the faces of the BPO workers and it is absurd to say their skills are only rudimentary.

Talent development

Beyond requiring a wide array of skills and deep expertise, the BPO industry – by its very nature – has been developing talent at a fast pace.

BPO workers have high standards.

Some agents have been faulted for speaking English with a twang or for being highhanded when dealing with others, but this is largely because they have begun expecting standards of customer service wherever they go that are the same as what irate callers hundreds of times a day expect from them. Yet they encounter horrible service everywhere – queuing up at the bank while tellers are busy gossiping, or being treated with contempt by government functionaries who do not understand public service.

The proverbially “matiisin” Filipino would endure this with infinite patience; BPO workers refuse to settle with lower expectations.

BPO workers are highly adaptable as the pace of change is relentless. As new accounts are signed, agents with relatively short experience are promoted to team leaders. Employees in one account are “seeded” into a new account. Many are sent abroad for months to undergo “knowledge transfer.”

In some cases, accounts go through a crisis situation: successive months of missed targets leading to penalties. This usually means double shifts and weekend overtime until the crisis is resolved. This is tough work and people do get burned out. But it also means the opportunity to mature and grow at an accelerated pace for those ready and willing to learn. It is this dizzying pace that has enabled me to move to 9 roles in 9 years.

BPO workers have a global mindset as they are at the forefront of globalization, which enabled the industry to rise. With broadband technology allowing global supply chains, BPO workers are used to collaborating with colleagues in multiple time zones.

A typical BPO manager might have a daily call with a client in Dallas and weekly meetings with teammates in Bangalore and Budapest. He is used to working in a matrix, reporting to an Indian local manager and a Brazilian global vice president. I myself was fortunate to work on a project for one month in Africa as part of a team of 14 colleagues from 12 countries speaking 28 languages.

Globalization is the day-to-day reality for BPO workers.

Cost and benefit 

To be sure, there is a cost to all this.

Working on the night shift takes its toll on health and typically leads to unhealthy ways of coping with stress, like smoking and drinking. The fast pace of change also affects morale. Those longing for stable roles that last for decades are struggling; but those who have learned to restlessly reinvent themselves are thriving.

But the benefits are immense.

One million people now have middle-class jobs with rising incomes. We have not even counted the ripple effects: 3 million more indirect jobs have been created. We have a real estate boom driven by demand for BPO office space. The rising affluence of BPO workers means, like OFWs, they are buying up condos and cars. They drink Starbucks every day and cannot stop posting selfies from their latest trip using their new smart phones.

These are the faces of the BPO worker. They have a broad set of skills like answering phones, yes, but they are also the back office practitioners, animators, web designers, and software developers of the world. They have deep expertise in specialized areas, high standards, adaptability, and a global outlook. Far from wasting talent, the BPO industry has relentlessly developed instead the young leaders of tomorrow.

Mark Andrew Lim, 29, graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman and has been working in the BPO industry for 9 years. He is now a director of operations at the world’s leading technology services firm.

Image vector from Shutterstock

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